Genuine string band
The Carolina Chocolate Drops make old traditions new again
The last time I saw Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson—collectively known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops—they were working a big, sweaty audience into a complete froth on a hot July afternoon at the High Sierra Fest up in Quincy. When Giddens—far and away the loveliest Drop of the three—got up to do a barefoot clog dance to one of their numbers, I thought that crowd was going to come apart with joy.
This was a woman who, just moments before, had been nursing her baby backstage while sedately telling me about the headaches of running the business of a touring band. And then, onstage, the music transformed her, and she could have been a slave girl, dancing on a Sunday afternoon in the antebellum South. It was a little like time traveling, watching this popular, new old-time string band resurrect some very old musical traditions with the kind of fervor that seems bred in their bones.
They’re all consummate musicians and multi-instrumentalists, with lots of study on their résumés. Giddens, for instance, went to Oberlin to study opera, and you can almost detect that training when you hear her singing the distinctly non-operatic Drops repertoire.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops re-teach the often forgotten historical connection between white Southern musical traditions and the black music being played there contemporaneously. The band reminds modern listeners that the banjo was, in fact, modeled after African instruments, and that many of the reels and jigs heard from the Carolinas westward evolved as an amalgam of Scots/Irish music brought there by the early white settlers and then enlivened by the music of the black slaves.
This is traditional American music with a capital T, and if you want an idea of just how down home it is, you can go to the Carolina Chocolate Drops website and find a link to a video in which Flemons will teach you how to play dem bones, a fairly primitive instrument from which he manages to generate a great deal of musical energy.
“I definitely feel a connection with the past when I’m playing the bones,” he told me in an awkward speakerphone interview from Decatur, Ala., a few weeks before they headed west for an appearance at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, and an Oct. 4 Chico show at Sierra Nevada Big Room. The three of them were on speakerphone, and so was I, transcribing what they said in response to questions I shouted at them, and answers they shouted back.
Still, despite the challenges presented, their shared love of the music came through loud and clear. When I asked if they ever tired of the songs, Flemons said, “The tunes that I lead on, I like singin’ ’em every time. There are subtle differences I can pull out, things I discover in those songs every time I sing them.”
“Dom is always happy with the music,” Giddens added, “forever and ever, amen.”
Their ability to find the new in what’s old may be one of the secrets to the energy the Drops generate onstage. And since so much of what they do evokes a rich black heritage, I wondered if it bothered them that more black people don’t find their way to their shows.
“It makes us happy when we have more black people in our audience,” Giddens said, “but getting ’em there is sometimes the challenge.”
Because the interview was strained by the speakerphone connection, I wondered if they ever got questions or comments from interviewers that put them off.
“When we were on The Tavis Smiley Show,” Giddens said, “he referred to us as ‘black hillbillies.’ That was a little annoying, and it seemed to suggest he didn’t really know what our music was about.”
But, Flemons says, “you don’t need prior knowledge to enjoy what we do. Just leave your workday behind you at the door, and prepare to have a good time.”